Gilda Radner was an amazing person. A strong and defiant woman comedian, when women's liberation was just gaining steam. Loving spouse of colleague Gene Wilder. Author of a book that made my mom cry. And another person killed by cancer, in 1989.
Two years after Ms. Radner's death, a network of clubhouses where people living with cancer, their friends, and families could meet for support was founded. It was called "Gilda's Club". It was a fitting legacy.
Which is why I was saddened to read this week that some of the Gilda's Club affiliates, most notably the one in Madison, Wisconsin, decided to drop Gilda from the name and become the generic "Cancer Support Community".
“One of the realizations we had this year is that our college students were born after Gilda Radner passed, as we are seeing younger and younger adults who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis,” Lannia Syren Stenz, the club’s executive director, told Madison.com. “We want to make sure that what we are is clear to them and that there’s not a lot of confusion that would cause people not to come in our doors.”
The internet and mainsteam media reaction was swift and angry. One of the more articulate complaints came from film critic Richard Roeper in the Chicago Sun-Times:
Having co-hosted an annual Gilda’s Club fundraiser in Chicago on a number of occasions, yes, I’ve had to explain the name and the legacy of Gilda Radner more than a few times. So what? It’s an opportunity to tell people about the wonderful characters Radner created for “Saturday Night Live,” and the comedic trail she helped blaze for brilliant minds such as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Members of the freshman class at Walter Payton College Prep were just babies when Walter Payton died. Forty-year-olds stuck in traffic on the Kennedy Expressway hadn’t been born when JFK was assassinated. Across the country, hospital wings and expressways and community centers and schools and airports and churches and skyscrapers are named after individuals that impacted the world. Years ago. Decades ago. Centuries ago. This is what education is all about — teaching the lessons of the past.
If a name change encourages even one additional young patient to seek comfort and support at one of these centers, it’s hard to argue against it. Nor am I suggesting anyone at those centers is disrespecting Ms. Radner’s memory. Obviously that’s not the intention.Exactly. In today's media landscape, an opportunity to tell a great story is a great brand asset. The answer to "Who's Gilda" will educate a whole new generation about a person and a cause. And it's interesting to note in the places where that story took Gilda Radner — Toronto and Chicago with Second City, and New York City — have no intention to change the name of their Gilda's Clubs.
But we are a better people when we honor and remember those that came before us, even if it means we have to take a breath, remind ourselves we were once young too — and explain yet again the story behind the name on the door.
Perhaps we should thank the misjudgement of Madison's club, however. By claiming that Gilda Radner was not relevant to Millennials, they actually caused her current relevancy to go through the roof.